Getting the description balance right
“Description begins in the writer's imagination, but should finish in the reader's.” – Stephen King
Beginner writers, I’ve discovered, can be divided cleanly into two equal groups: those who describe too much and those who describe too little.
“How can you have too much?” the writer with a tendency to long descriptions might ask. “I just want the reader to see what I see.”
The problem with that is that lengthy descriptions slow the pace of the story and bore the reader. Yes, rather than forming a vivid picture of the scene, the reader starts to jump ahead to the action. Too much jumping ahead to find where the story is hidden amongst the lavish prose, and eventually the reader will simply stop reading altogether.
“In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it 'got boring,' the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling,” says Stephen King.
“But I write action-oriented stories,” the lean writer might argue. “I don’t want to interrupt the flow with description.”
The problem with this end of the spectrum is that the reader then cannot picture the scene at all, and struggles to connect to the story and the characters because they cannot ‘see’ it. (After all, not everyone has the visionary gifts we writers have – that’s why we’re writers and not just readers!)
As Stephen King says: “Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted.”
The solution is a happy balance between the two: just enough description to provide colour, form and texture to the world you’ve created, but not so much that the reader cannot complete the picture in their own mind.
Jane is the heroine in a Romantic Suspense. She has just learned that she has inherited a surprising large amount of money from her late grandfather and that her cousin, who has severe gambling debts, wants that money for himself…
Too little description:
“Arriving home, Jane pulled into the garage and cut the engine. She sat, listening, but everything was quiet, so she let herself into the house. Once she’d checked all the rooms, she had a quick shower, then sat down to read the papers from her grandfather’s lawyer. Her phone beeped with a message just as she sat down: I'm coming for what’s mine. Another ominous message from a withheld number.”
Yes, it’s gripping and pacy. But if this house is going to play a large part in the story and be the setting for quite a few scenes, we’d really like to be able to picture it. Is it a typical suburban home, is it small or large, is it in a complex or are the neighbours far away? We don’t even know where she’s sitting to read the papers!
Too much description:
“Jane’s home was a double-story house in a modern eco-estate that had been the first of its kind in South Africa. It had been designed by a team of architectural students who had won a competition run by the developer to create affordable suburban homes that were environmentally friendly. The design philosophy was rooted in the concept of sustainable living, and the estate featured roofs made of solar panels, cleverly concealed rain water tanks, and indigenously planted gardens. Each house was built using recycled materials, with gray water recycling, and energy-efficient windows so that the buildings required little heating in the winter or cooling in the summer. The estate had featured in international architectural magazines, and Jane felt very fortunate to have heard of this development in its construction phase, so she was able to buy a unit before they were all snapped up. As she drove in through the tall gates made of recycled black steel, she admired the brick and steel houses, and the neat front gardens artistically planted with succulents and yellow wild irises. She turned left and drove down a street lined with five houses, before turning at the traffic circle. Her own house lay at the end of the short, quiet cul-de-sac. She drove into the garage, which she kept neat, with nothing but a tool box and her mountain bike leaning up against the white-painted walls. Locking the car, she let herself into the house, the door from the garage leading straight into the sunny kitchen that contained all the latest in eco-friendly appliances….”
You get the picture right? Are you still reading, wondering when the reader will get to the point?
Unless those water tanks or the mountain bike become crucial to the plot later in the story, are they necessary? We most certainly don’t need the back story of the estate unless it’s going to become relevant to the story later.
And that’s 260 words with no action except driving, parking and getting out.
A happy medium:
“Jane drove through the recycled steel gates into the modern eco-estate, her heart lifting as it always did when she came home. She loved the design of the houses, the water-wise indigenous gardens and the energy-efficient homes. She’d been so lucky to snap up a house during the construction phase. Her own brick-and-steel double-story lay in a quiet cul-de-sac. She parked in the garage, and listened to the silence broken only by the cooling engine. It was silly to have let that earlier message unsettle her. But even so, after she let herself in through the sunny, lemon-scented kitchen, she checked all the rooms. Nothing had been disturbed, and the house was as neat as she’d left it, so she had a quick shower before settling down at the reclaimed oak dining table to read through the papers from her grandfather’s lawyer. Her phone beeped with a message just as she sat down: I'm coming for what’s mine. Another ominous message from a withheld number.”
Stephen King: “Overdescription buries [the reader] in details and images. The trick is to find a happy medium. It’s also important to know what to describe and what can be left alone while you get on with your main job, which is telling a story. . . . ”
So how do you know which details to include and which to leave out?
Here are a few tips to help you improve your descriptions:
Give an impression rather than detail. This way, you let the reader fill in the details in their own imagination. Notice that in the ‘happy medium’ example above, I don’t list the plants growing in the gardens. By describing them as ‘water-wise indigenous gardens’ I leave the rest up to the reader.
Select just one or two details. Instead of describing your character’s attire head to toe (earrings, jacket, blouse, skirt, accessories, shoes) consider something like this description from Janet Evanovich: “Connie was wearing fuchsia lipstick, matching nail enamel and white blouse with big black polka dots.” Notice how in just one sentence we get a pretty vivid picture of Connie?
Use the description to tell us something about the character / place. The next line in that Janet Evanovich quote is “The nail enamel was very cool, but the blouse wasn’t a good choice for someone who carried sixty percent of her body weight on her chest.” Now she makes the elements she chose relevant.
Use all the senses. Too often we indulge the sense of sight (all the things the character sees) but forget the other senses. In my example above, Jane hears silence, and the engine cooling, and smells the lemon scent of the kitchen in addition to describing what she sees.
Add emotion to the description. Description becomes relevant when it is accompanied my memory or emotion. In the ‘happy medium’ example above, you not only got a description of what Jane was seeing as she drove through the estate, but also the fact that she loves her home.
Incorporate the description into the action. Instead of having the character list everything they see, use just 2-3 words of description alongside the action. Eg. “Jane drove through the recycled steel gates” or “She sat at the reclaimed oak dining table”. This tip is especially useful for those who use too little description. Adding a couple of words here and there won’t slow your pace, but will add colour and texture to the scene.
Describe only what is relevant. We don’t need detailed descriptions of Jane’s friend's house, or what her colleague wore to work that day. We do need descriptions of the main locations of the book – the heroine’s home, her office, any other places where a lot of scenes will take place.
Finally, use your descriptions for fore-shadowing. I included the quiet cul-de-sac, because it’s possible that at the book’s climax, when she is being chased by her evil cousin, she might need to run to the neighbours for help and discover that no one is home. Or she cannot be seen by the cars passing on the main road. By all means, include that mountain bike if it’s later going to be her means of escape, or a rainwater tank if it’s how she’s going to hide from her cousin. Again, this is a handy tip for those who write lean, because once you’ve written the story, you can go back and add in descriptions of any items that will later be relevant. But if it’s not going to play a part later, consider cutting it out!
“For me, good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else. In most cases, these details will be the first ones that come to mind.” – Stephen King
Do you have any other tips for writing good description, or examples of descriptions you loved? Share your thoughts and questions in the comments below.